The American League's postseason picture is finally coming into sharper focus as far as who's in and who's out, but is it that settled? Who's going to playing in the wild-card game? And will anybody have to play on Thursday?
1. Three games to go: Yankees or Orioles -- who wins the East?
Eric Karabell (@karabellespn), ESPN.com: The Orioles have been an incredible story, so why stop now? Well, the schedule is stopping it, to some degree. There's a palpable difference between the Rays and Red Sox. At this point it would be a surprise if the Red Sox, in the tank for months and with a manager nearing the end, took more than one game at Yankee Stadium this week. The formidable Rays, meanwhile, host the Orioles for three. Hey, at least the Orioles will get to play Friday.
Jason Wojciechowski (@jlwoj), Beaneball: Baltimore has a much tougher opponent -- it faces the Rays, while the Yankees play at home against the Red Sox. On the other hand, the Orioles won't have to deal with David Price or Matt Moore. The remaining three Tampa starters are no slouches, but matchup minutiae leads me to favor Baltimore by about 53-47 even though I'd take the Yankees over the Orioles in a seven-game head-to-head series.
Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski), Baseball Think Factory: It's extremely close, but I'll give a very slight edge to the Yankees. The Red Sox will surely relish the opportunity to play spoiler and cut New York's World Series odds in half with a solid series, but the Yankees do get the benefit of having a game against Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has one good start in the majors going back to April 2011 and is scheduled to start the season finale. The Rays don't have anyone comparable to Dice-K starting, and that's enough to break the tie for me. Besides, I've been a grumpy pessimist about the O's all year, and if I suddenly become a sunny optimist, I might shatter the fragile balance of their miraculous run.
2. Three games to go: Athletics or Rangers, who wins the West?
Karabell: Texas has been playing as if everything has been clinched for weeks, which it sure isn't. Regardless, the only weak link for the Rangers is Martin Perez, the 21-year-old lefty who couldn't escape the first inning in his last outing, scheduled to start Monday. I think Matt Harrison and Ryan Dempster step up and Texas wins the West in regulation, but don't overlook the winner of Friday's Orioles-Athletics game doing damage in their next series.
Wojciechowski: With the A's needing a sweep to take the West and Travis Blackley throwing against Matt Harrison in the middle game of the series, I think their odds are slim. I wouldn't give them more than a 30 percent chance of pulling it off. I pick a number even that high because they don't have to deal with Yu Darvish.
Szymborski: I think the Rangers still hold on. A two-game lead looks strong when you have only three games left in the season, and the A's need to sweep the Rangers to take the division. Texas has essentially treaded water over the second half of the season, but it still has the best record in the American League and hasn't been swept since it visited Chicago right before the All-Star break. The A's are the overwhelming favorite to face the O's and will still get the wild card, but Texas should win the division.
3. Will anybody be playing on Thursday?
Karabell: Perhaps it was wishful thinking that we'd have multiple Thursday games, but the NL is done, and the White Sox have dug a hole they won't be able to escape with a good three days. The Tigers just need one win. I guess we'll be watching preseason hockey on Thursday night -- oh, wait -- and preparing for Friday.
Wojciechowski: It's boring to say that the teams that are currently tied are the ones who are most likely to be tied come Thursday, but what can I say? I'm a practical sort of person. The only teams separated by less than two games are the Yankees and Orioles. I'll be rooting for it to happen, for what it's worth. Playing a one-game playoff for the right to avoid a one-game playoff is Escherian enough to appeal to me.
Szymborski: If you're watching a major professional sport on TV this Thursday, it's either the O's and Yankees, or else you'll be watching the Arizona Cardinals play the St. Louis Rams. To complete the football analogy, the Angels, Rays, White Sox and Dodgers all retain theoretical playoff shots, but it would involve Hail Marys and nary a replacement ref in sight. If we get some overtime baseball this Thursday, it's going to be AL East-related.